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Reading & Writing in the Disciplines

Science Literacy: Reading and Writing Diagrams

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Students use models to explain how the relative positions of the Sun, Moon, and Earth determine Moon phases, eclipses, and tides. They also explore the importance of diagrams in communicating information.

Teacher: Mike Viney

School: Blevins Middle School, Fort Collins, CO

Grade: 8

Discipline: Science

Lesson Topic: Moon phases and misleading diagrams

Lesson Month: May

Number of Students: 27

Featured Lesson’s Student Goals:

  • Content objectives – Observe, model, and explain how the relative positions of Earth, Moon, and Sun are responsible for Moon phases, eclipses, and tides; use the knowledge gained from models to critique diagrams illustrating Moon phases; discover that the Moon’s phases about Earth are named with respect to the Earth/Sun plane
  • Literacy/language objectives – Use an online diagram and Moon phases computer program to explain how the relative positions of Earth, Moon, and Sun are responsible for Moon phases; use knowledge gained from the “Moon-on-a stick” activity to critique the diagram used on the website; draw a new diagram of Earth, Moon, and Sun system to illustrate the fact that the Moon’s orbit about the Sun is tilted; write a letter to the website manager providing constructive feedback on how their diagram could be improved
  • Engagement/interaction objectives – Work individually and in groups to model, discover, and explain how the relative positions of Earth, Moon, and Sun produce the Moon’s phases; work in groups to compare and contrast individual writing and collaborate to write a letter using the best components from individual letters

Standards Addressed:

Colorado Academic Standards

Earth Systems Science

  • Standard 3.3
    The solar system is comprised of various objects that orbit the Sun and are classified based on their characteristics
  • Standard 3.4
    The relative positions and motions of Earth, Moon, and Sun can be used to explain observable effects such as seasons, eclipses, and Moon phases

Reading, Writing, and Communication

  • Standard 3. Writing and Composition
    Effectively use content-specific language, style, tone, and text structure to compose or adapt writing for different audiences and purposes
  • 21st Century Skill and Readiness Competencies
    Writers know how important it is to connect prior knowledge with new information.

Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts

    Write arguments to support claims with clear reasons and relevant evidence
    Support claim(s) with logical reasoning and relevant evidence, using accurate, credible sources and demonstrating an understanding of the topic or text.
    Use words, phrases, and clauses to create cohesion and clarify the relationships among claim(s), counterclaims, reasons, and evidence.
    Establish and maintain a formal style.
    Write informative/explanatory texts to examine a topic and convey ideas, concepts, and information through the selection, organization, and analysis of relevant content.
    With some guidance and support from peers and adults, develop and strengthen writing as needed by planning, revising, editing, rewriting, or trying a new approach, focusing on how well purpose and audience have been addressed.
    Use technology, including the Internet, to produce and publish writing and present the relationships between information and ideas efficiently as well as to interact and collaborate with others.

Instruction details:

The Unit
This 10- to 15-day unit, the final unit of the school year, focused on astronomy and included solar system structure, Moon phases, tides and seasons, and space exploration. This lesson occurred about five days into the unit.

Before the Video
Students studied the components and characteristics of the solar system and space exploration (international missions with a focus on how scientists gather information about the solar system across different missions—both remotely and on site).

During the Video
Using background knowledge, students answered a journal question and illustrated and named the eight different phases of the Moon in their interactive notebooks and together as a class. Then, Mr. Viney had students participate in a hands-on “Moon-on-a-stick” activity to better understand the relationship between the relative positions of Earth, Moon, and Sun and to learn how Moon phases are created. After an introduction to the activity, students explored individually by rotating in place as “Earth” in the vicinity of the “Sun” (a lamp) while holding their Moon and making observations about how it appears. Mr. Viney then had a student model this process in front of the class while standing in a direct line with the light source to convey the relevance of the Moon’s tilt. In their interactive notebooks, students drew the orbit that resulted from their exploration.

In pairs, students looked at an online diagram and used their own knowledge to critique it for inaccuracies and misleading information. They described the Moon phases on a printed diagram handout and drew their interpretation of the Moon’s orbit on a tilt. They then wrote a rough draft of a letter to the website with recommendations on how to improve the diagram. Mr. Viney ended the lesson with two questions for students to ponder: How would you approach diagrams differently in textbooks or on the Internet? Why do we only ever see one side of the Moon?

After the Video:
Mr. Viney revisited the two final questions with students and did a demo to help explain why only one side of the Moon is visible from Earth. Students continued to work on the drafts of the letters. In small groups of three or four, the best diagram and letter were identified. Mr. Viney continued the unit by relating the Moon phases to the causes of tides and seasons. He gathered the “best” letters selected by students from all of his 8th grade science classes, pared them down to those he thought were strongest, and sent them to the website.

Teacher Prep
To prepare for this lesson, Mr. Viney created two models of the Earth/Moon system: one where the Moon’s orbit stayed on same plane and a second where the orbit was on a tilt. He set up the room for the demos and put regular bulbs in the heat lamps.

Prior Knowledge
To participate in this lesson, students needed to have studied Newton’s laws of motion, gravity, planets and celestial bodies, solar energy and how the Sun generates heat and light, and meteorology. They also needed to be familiar with the catch phrases Mr. Viney and his colleagues use across the disciplines: activating background knowledgeasking questionsmaking inferencesdetermining importancemaking mental imagessynthesizing information, and monitoring comprehension.

Differentiated Instruction
Mr. Viney taught content from different angles to reach students in different ways—he had students draw, write, read, explore on computer, and relate content to their own personal experiences. He modified lessons for students who needed special support. (For example, for lab write-ups, Mr. Viney used diagrams and visual cues to help show students procedures; he offered options to draw or write answers.)

Group Interaction
Students worked in pairs to evaluate diagrams and in small groups to produce a letter and diagram that showed the group’s best thinking. Students were always encouraged to ask for help from their classmates when needed.

Resources and Tools

  • Interactive notebook
  • Smart Board
  • Computer
  • Blackboard program
  • The Phases of the Moon lesson plan from the Canadian Space Agency
  • Charting the Moon handout from the Canadian Space Agency handout
  • The Phases of the Moon handout from the Canadian Space Agency
  • 8th Grade Scientific Method Report Rubric handout
  • 2-inch Styrofoam balls on sticks
  • 4-inch Styrofoam ball
  • Heat lamps with 100-watt light bulbs
  • Homemade Earth/Moon systems (one on a single plane and one with the Moon’s orbital plane intersecting Earth’s orbital plane at an angle)


Formative Assessment
Mr. Viney walked around the room, observed, and interacted with students to determine if modifications to the lesson were needed. He asked questions to gauge understanding. The journal question helped Mr. Viney assess the group’s depth of background knowledge on Moon phases. To assess students individually, Mr. Viney reviewed each student’s Phases of the Moon worksheet and Charting the Phases of the Moon homework and gave feedback on students’ diagrams and writing.

Student Self-Assessment
Students received peer and teacher feedback on their diagrams and letters through multiple revisions and stages, each time using feedback to improve their messaging. Mr. Viney provided students with a rubric for self-grading and peer review. Mr. Viney also used the Blackboard program to create a “review” or take-home test to help students assess their own understanding.

Summative Assessment
Mr. Viney used the Blackboard program to give students a test that assessed their individual growth throughout the astronomy unit. Mr. Viney’s school district measures student growth with “common assessments” across the district, which include pre- and post-assessments for each unit.

Ongoing Assessment
Throughout the year, Mr. Viney did regular checks of each student’s interactive notebook to track growth over the year.

Impact of Assessment
Mr. Viney used the assessments to look for trends in his classroom. Based on standardized testing results, he moved the astronomy unit to earlier in the curriculum so that students learned these concepts prior to the test (which occurred in March/April).

Series Directory

Reading & Writing in the Disciplines


Produced by WGBH Educational Foundation. 2015.
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  • ISBN: 1-57680-906-4